Blocks in the "Quilt Code"
"Code" proponent has her own list of blocks, but
here are a few of those most commonly claimed.
the "Code" versions that specify a pattern include this
design. However, there is considerable disagreement over
what the pattern actually meant.
In Hidden in
Plain View, Ozella says it instructs slaves to "dig a
log cabin" in Cleveland, but the authors speculate that
no actual cabin was involved; rather, they say, this meant
either drawing a secret symbol on the ground or the amount of
time it would take to build a log cabin.
Dobard also says the Log Cabin quilts may have been hung
outside to signify an Underground Railroad "safe
Stroud, on the
other hand, says the block is "a sign that someone needed
Ozella's niece - says the pattern refers to the Canadian
government giving escaped slaves land for every acre they
cleared. Yet the only such land grants I found predated the
Underground Railroad, and were for blacks who had fought for
Britain in the War of 1812. Canadian
land was only "free" until the government
surveyed it, after which those living on it either had to
purchase it or leave. Many black settlements disbanded as a
Closeup of c.1865"Courthouse Steps" Log Cabin made of narrow strips of gauzy wool "delaine" foundation pieced on calico.
Each strip is about
Click to see full quilt.
I could find no reference to a land-for-labor offer
such as Wilson describes. Even if such a grant existed,
Wilson does not explain how knowledge of it would assist
all these ideas: she says that (a) drawn in the dirt,
the pattern signified a friend; (b) the quilt pattern instructed
slaves to set up a home in a free state (why did they need to
be told this?); and also (c)
indicated a safe house depending on the color of the center,
as described below. She also claims the block was
"invented" by Susan B. Anthony, and says Anthony
hung a quilt in her window if the house was safe; if a quilt
was not displayed, it meant her father "who opposed
abolition" was home and therefore the house was not
safe. (In fact, Anthony's father was a prominent
abolitionist long before his daughter got involved.)
Louisianan Cely Pedescleaux claims that "a log cabin quilt always has a light and a dark side as part of its design. If the quilt was displayed light side up,
that meant the fugitives would be running by day; dark side up meant running by night." How would Pedescleaux suggest these 19th century Log Cabin quilts be hung so that the
light or dark side was "up"?
description of the Log Cabin is particularly complex. In a February
2004 lecture at a Sacramento library, she stated:
Log Cabin quilt is a map of the town. See all these squares? They
represent houses. So the slaves would know how big the towns were.
Here is a house and here is a house. (Pointing.) Black is a symbol
of danger – so you see these black squares in the center? Slaves
would know that that house was not safe. Do you notice the other
squares in the centers? They have little colored flames in them,
to represent a fireplace. You know how safe and warm it is to
snuggle up to a fire? These squares with flames in them showed the
slaves this house was safe.”
notes taken at lecture by Marilyn Maddelena Withrow; email to
The color of the Log Cabin's
center is of great importance to "Code" proponents, but
the colors' meanings seems to be up for debate. According to
African textile historian Peggy Gilfoy, among the Ashanti gold
signifies wealth, and blue and black signify danger and
death. Compare this to the claims of "Code"
Fry says that the centers of
these "signal" Log Cabin quilts were black - which
apparently meant both "safe house" and "someone
might die". But she provides no source for this
information, and her other
claims about quilts are demonstrably
the Quilt of Night uses a Log Cabin with a blue center to
quilt works like a traffic light. She says the quilt
signified a "safe house" if the center was black;
a yellow center meant
"caution," and a red center meant
Lecturers Fuller and Toni
Leoman disagree, claiming that a red center indicated a
fire was burning and the home was safe to come into; a black
center meant that the fire was out, danger was close and to
"black" was really blue (Fry says blue
"protects the maker"), but then points out that a Log Cabin
quilt owned by Underground Railroad conductor William Still
had "a yellow center", so perhaps yellow was the
"safe house" signal since "in Africa, the color
yellow is used to signify life."
code" lecturer Gloria Bowen claims that the centers of
the Still quilt are not yellow, but black!
A variety of 19thc. Log Cabin quilts. Which color center is the "right" one - and what does it mean?
Whatever the color
of the Log Cabin center, the assertion about a "safe
house" signal is directly contradicted by Tobin's
that Ozella said quilts were not hung as signals, which in
turn is contradicted by her niece's claims that they were.
Presumably in an
effort to prove some sort of quilt/Underground Railroad
connection, author Tobin points
to a Log Cabin quilt pictured in her book, which she says is
"dated 1840-1850....It was a gift given to the Rev. William
King by the former slaves he took to Ontario and
freed." But according to Alice Newby, retired curator
of the Buxton (Ontario) Museum where the quilt is housed, while it
was indeed a gift to Rev. King from his former slaves, the quilt
has no connection at all to the Underground Railroad. The makers
of the quilt were Rev. King's own slaves, whom he himself freed
and who came with him to Canada
in 1849; they did not escape, via the Underground Railroad or any
other means. The quilt, she says, dates from after
the group arrived in Canada. Newby, who is a descendant of the original
Buxton settlers, described Hidden in Plain View
as "totally ridiculous."
have been made that some Log Cabin quilts date to the
antebellum period, written inquiries regarding how the age of
these quilts was determined either have received no response,
or no evidence was offered documenting the quilt was anywhere
near the age claimed.
In fact, the Log
Cabin pattern seems to be limited to the North as a popular
expression of Union sentiment; I have not been able to find
any documented examples dating from before the Civil War.
Quilt historian Barbara Brackman notes in Quilts from the Civil War
that the earliest date-inscribed quilt of this pattern is
Virginia Gunn has found three written references to Log Cabin
quilts as fundraisers for the union cause in 1863, the likely
year for the beginning of the style. At that point the
underground Railroad no longer functioned as it had before the
War....So we must not imagine Log Cabin quilts as signals in
the decade before the War. Rather, like Emancipation, the
pattern grew out of the War. It is more historically accurate
to view their symbolic function as an indicator of allegiance
to President Lincoln and the Union cause...One indication that
a Union connection [with the pattern] continued is the
relative lack of late nineteenth-century Log Cabin quilts made
in the former Confederate states.
Brackman notes five different patterns with this
name. How do we know which one the "Code" uses?
Fry claims that "Triangles in quilt
design signified prayer messages or prayer badge, a way of
offering prayer." She makes no mention of
triangle patterns being used in a "code".
and Ozella say Flying Geese
"reminded" slaves to head north. Why would
they need reminding?
says the pattern instructed to take their cues on direction,
timing and behavior (including stopping to rest and eat) from
the migrating geese. Were slaves likely to leave
in the dead of winter, or forget to rest and eat along the
way, that they had to be told otherwise?
uses the first block pictured, and says it instructed slaves to travel in whatever direction
the 2 darkest triangles were then pointed, making the way the
quilt was displayed critical. But in a written reply to
questions from elementary school students, author Tobin
emphatically stated that Ozella never said the quilts were
used as signaling devices. Is Ozella's niece wrong, or did Tobin
misunderstand Ozella? If so, what else did Tobin misunderstand?
In presenting a printed fabric in
a Flying Geese pattern, Fuller said it was called Broken
Plate, claiming that slaves believed that it was used in
quilts because "when things were broken up, it would
confuse people". What help is this to escaping
pattern was first used by Victorian ladies to show off scraps of
their finest silk fabrics. But Wilson says this pattern was hung
on a clothesline to tell slaves "to gather food, clothing,
and anything that could be used as weapons". Boswell generally agrees
Blocks quilt, courtesy Teri Ascolese.
Wilson also says it "was the code name for Niagara Falls, the
final landmark before crossing into Canada and freedom," and
that escaped slaves "crossed the [Niagara] river in
boats, while others swam." This writer grew up a few
miles from Niagara Falls. Here
is a view of the river above the falls; below
the Falls the Niagara is 100+ feet deep, in a deep, rocky gorge,
and travels at a speed of 8-22mph). (The current water
flow is only about half what it would have been in the 19th
century.) A Niagara
history website recounts one rowboat adventure:
July 16th 1853 -
three men working on a dredging scow (barge) which was anchored
in the Niagara River east of Goat Island [i.e., above the Falls]
decided to go to shore during the afternoon. The only way to
shore was by use of a row boat. As the three men started rowing
to shore, they soon discovered that the current of the water was
much stronger than they had anticipated. Suddenly one of their
oars broke. The small row boat entered the American Channel
rapids and swept downstream. The rowboat capsized. Two of the
men were swept to their death over the brink of the American
Falls. The third man, Samuel Avery, was able to grab onto some
tree roots growing from a rock just east of Chapin Island. Avery
spent the night stranded in the cool fast flowing water. The
sound of the rapids prevented any of Avery's screams for help to
The next morning, Avery's
plight was observed by several tourists. Efforts to rescue Avery
began. Initial efforts consisted of releasing boats and raft
from the Bath Island Bridge. None of the craft were able to
reach Avery. Finally a boat which was tethered to the Bath
Island Bridge was guided downstream and reached Samuel Avery.
With little strength left, Avery was able to climb into the boat
but the boat immediately capsized throwing Avery back into the
turbulent waters. Throwing his hands up in surrender, Avery let
out a final scream, fell backwards into the water and was swept
to his death over the American Falls.
How likely is it
that slaves would swim across the river
anywhere near the Falls?
A 19th century view of the Niagara
River below the Falls. The Suspension Bridge was
over 1,000 feet long and spanned a gorge more than 200
feet deep. The water moves at up to 20mph.
Travelers could also hazard the ferry crossing.
"Code" proponents claim fugitives swam across
this river to Canada.
fact, escaped slaves specifically describe using the ferry at
Youngstown, at the northernmost end of the river, almost at Lake
Ontario; there was also a ferry below the Falls (see image at
left). In 1848 the first footbridge was built across the
200-foot-deep gorge, followed by a railroad bridge in
1855. Harriet Tubman is known to
have brought some of her passengers across that bridge by train.
But none of the "Codes" mention it.